God Help Us

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of hip-hopness

Wars on drugs, terrorism, and press freedoms aside, the U.S. government is also committed to ensuring the rights of all Americans to peaceably party, particularly when the celebrants are tens of thousands of young blacks. Over the past two decades super-fetes attended by large numbers of college-age black kids have become a tradition in post-segregation America. The preferred locations for these rites of pleasure have been Atlanta (Freaknik); Philadelphia (Greekfest Week); Galveston (Texas Beach Week); Virginia Beach, Virginia (Labor Day weekend); Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (Black Bike Week); and Daytona Beach (Black College Reunion). A newcomer to the list is South Beach (Urban Beach Week), where to the surprise of local police commanders, about 250,000 visitors showed up on Memorial Day weekend last year. Local authorities are preparing for a human tsunami twice that size to roll in starting May 23, for this year's installment.

The federal point man in Florida for ensuring that everyone's civil rights are respected is 49-year-old Tom Battles. The talkative bureaucrat, whose dark-green blazer and large eyeglass frames hint at Seventies-style hipness, is director of the Miami field office of the U.S. Justice Department's Community Relations Service. In his small, dingy war room on the sixth floor of the Federal Building in downtown Miami, the conciliator uses phrases like "sensitivities," "police accountability," and "moral litmus test."

Congress created CRS in 1964 under the Civil Rights Act to help local governments resolve or prevent racial conflicts in a nation still suffering from its twisted history of slavery and bigotry. The Miami field office opened just before riots broke out in Liberty City and other black areas in 1980 when an all-white jury acquitted four police officers charged with bludgeoning to death a black insurance salesman named Arthur McDuffie.

Happiness is embracing a few hundred thousand hip-hoppers, says the Justice Department's Tom Battles (center)
Steve Satterwhite
Happiness is embracing a few hundred thousand hip-hoppers, says the Justice Department's Tom Battles (center)

The CRS's top priority is to mediate "police-community disputes," Battles explains. "You know, excessive-force concerns. Rodney King-type situations." He also offers his services when discrimination disputes erupt at schools and workplaces. And several times a year he joins a five- to ten-person CRS team and heads to such coastal towns as Daytona Beach, Myrtle Beach, and Biloxi to help prevent racially charged unrest from breaking out when masses of young black citizens pack into the hot party locale of the month. Increasingly he has been driving east across MacArthur Causeway to offer his expertise to concerned Miami Beach officialdom.

Battles knows the lay of the land. He grew up in Liberty City in the Fifties and Sixties, played quarterback at Miami Central High School, earned a master's degree in criminal justice from Florida A&M University. He was an advisor on race-related matters for Gov. Bob Graham from 1978 to 1984, when he joined the CRS.

Since then he and counterparts in Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and elsewhere have been gradually refining a strategy for keeping the peace at large-scale gatherings with high potential for racial conflict. The latest version is contained in a 31-page planning guide, the result of an analysis of their experiences managing racially explosive situations in eight cities that host "large gatherings of minority college-age youths" each year. Battles and his colleagues presented their findings at a 1999 conference in Atlanta attended by cops (including two from Miami Beach), businesspeople, and government officials from all over the eastern United States. "This is the playbook," Battles says proudly.

In their analysis the CRS men and women identified a list of nineteen recurring concerns voiced by locals when such fetes invade their towns. The main ones are that:

•Traffic congestion heightens pre-existing tensions.

•Inevitable public urination due to shortage of bathroom facilities increases tension.

•Lewd behavior and "inappropriate attire" leads to overt sexuality in public places.

•Partiers leave large amounts of litter.

•They also cause property damage.

•The local residents fear some minorities.

•Local criminals use such events as cover for crime sprees.

•Residents feel like hostages in their own communities.

The CRS team also determined that partiers had their own concerns, including:

•Problems entering and exiting the event, caused by congestion and heavy police presence.

•Feeling unwelcome.

•A sense that laws were more strictly enforced against them than against whites.

•A feeling of widespread racial discrimination.

•A fear they might be assaulted by other partiers.

To ensure that future massive celebrations would go right, the CRS analyzed the ones that had gone wrong. In Atlanta's Black College Spring Break, a.k.a. "Freaknik," things had gotten so intense by 1988 that the party had outgrown Piedmont Park and spilled over into the downtown Atlanta streets, snarling traffic and impeding emergency responses by police, fire, and rescue personnel. It became a car-cruising event, with students coming from surrounding states and causing gridlock, wrecked hotel rooms, crime, and lewdness (in fact it became so notorious Tom Wolfe lifted the opening scene of A Man in Full from real-life reports in the Atlanta Constitution). By 1993, according to the CRS playbook, "the mayor of Atlanta rejected the event and many hotels did not accept reservations from black youth." But 100,000 came anyway and disturbances led to 100 arrests.

Up the coast in Virginia Beach, late-night rioting broke out over Labor Day weekend in 1989 when more than 100,000 people crowded into the small resort town, traffic backed up, tensions rose, and the whole thing exploded in riots and looting. According to the CRS, damage was estimated at $1.9 million. Residents and partiers criticized the police department for handling the situation poorly.

By 1999, Philadelphia's "Greekfest Weekend" in Fairmount Park had devolved from what began as black college fraternity boys' rites-of-spring beer blasts into a citywide orgy of "whirling," in which large numbers of young men would surround young women and grope, strip, and sometimes sexually molest them. Police on the scene were often unable to intervene without shooting, because the girls would be surrounded by crowds sometimes twenty deep.

In each case, the CRS analysts found, problems were subsequently alleviated with the implementation of a few basic concepts: Keep traffic moving with an effective traffic plan; make sure police, city officials, business owners, and promoters communicate; send clergy and community volunteers into the streets to spread goodwill; make arrests only when absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately none of this experience was utilized on South Beach last Memorial Day. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, Battles was in Myrtle Beach, preparing to ward off racial conflict at Black Bike Week, a motorcycle festival that attracts 100,000 young people and features scantily clad young women spreading their legs on shiny Kawasakis amid outbursts of public sex and urination. Like everybody else in the Miami-Dade crowd-control business in 2001, Battles missed the mobs that deluged the Beach for four days. Level and other nightclubs were filled to capacity, and crowds of frustrated youths formed outside. By the time the streets finally cleared, police clocked approximately 200 arrests, 3 nonfatal shootings, 3 sexual assaults, 2 stabbings, and 15 robberies.

The aftermath was especially dizzying because a similar hip-hop invasion for the Source Hip-Hop Music Awards was scheduled to occur in just three months. Battles was contacted by MIABPD Lt. Michael Aucu, who had attended the CRS's 1999 conference in Atlanta. He provided a critique based on the CRS playbook.

Battles identified several problems. One was lack of communication. "The club owners didn't communicate with the Miami Beach PD to let them know exactly what they were doing and the kinds of crowds they were expecting. So the police were sort of caught by surprise. That was a big mistake."

Nor, Battles says, had there been a town hall meeting in which residents and business owners could air their concerns. Or a welcome brochure for the visitors. Above all, no one had organized a God Squad.

The God Squad, like most elements of the CRS strategy, was borrowed from Daytona Beach, a mass-party mecca that hosts the Daytona 500, Daytona Bike Week (the world's largest motorcyclist gathering), and Black College Reunion. In 1988 Larry Edwards, a Baptist pastor who is chaplain of the city's police department, organized dozens of ministers to help serve as buffers between cops and the approximately 200,000 black youths who show up for the reunion each year. He came up with the catchy name "God Squad" to give his holy patrolmen more credibility among gangstas and thugs. Dozens of other volunteers, dubbed goodwill ambassadors, provided backup.

Surprisingly, the tactic pacified the unruly so well that municipal officials in other party towns insisted Edwards come to them to spread the light: "My thing is that we're going to kill 'em with kindness because they're looking for the opposite," Edwards says of the hip-hop hordes.

When Battles began working with Miami Beach authorities, he invited Edwards down from Daytona to explain the God Squad system. It was successfully incorporated into the major-events plan the city worked up for the Source Awards. Happily, the partying and street cruising last August proceeded smoothly. (There were a few noteworthy incidents, including a nonfatal stabbing in front of Level and the arrest of a recklessly speeding Source Awards producer, Raymond Scott, who was pulled out of his Ferrari and charged after scuffling with a traffic cop.)

Edwards, who is 47, returned to Miami Beach earlier this month to further the God Squad concept in the minds of police officers. He thinks MBPD commanders may underestimate the importance of God Squad deployment. "They have to be a link from the police department to the community. They've got to sell the story of the job the police officers have to do," the pastor warns. Edwards is concerned that not enough Miami Beach officers understand when to let the God Squad do its thing. "You have to train with the police officers for the concept to work. They've got to be on one chord with when to back out. That's something that we're going to work more on in the city of Miami Beach."

Edwards also warns that the God Squad on Memorial Day weekend could be too tiny to defuse much evil. His tried-and-true system requires many more ministers on the streets than goodwill ambassadors, but Miami Beach has it the other way around. While 100 to 150 clergy patrolled around the clock during Daytona's Black College Reunion last year, only five to ten have so far signed on for Urban Beach Week, along with about 150 goodwill ambassadors.

How well things will go on South Beach next weekend is anyone's guess. So far local authorities are following the CRS's state-of-the-art strategy for a successful mega-party. They have organized a traffic plan designed to keep vehicles moving and held public forums to both inform residents of the event and allow them to vent. The volunteer goodwill ambassadors will give visitors directions and distribute welcome brochures, and they will alert police to disturbances. Battles says that the Miami Beach Police Department is coordinating with the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Florida Highway Patrol. "We're basically going by the Justice Department book word by word," offers Miami Beach police spokesman Bobby Hernandez.

The CRS strategy hinges on one important principle, however. "Embrace the event," Battles counsels. "Don't send a message out to these folks that they're not welcome."

Battles thinks Memorial Day weekend will be a "moral litmus test of tolerance" for Beach residents. (A community meeting was scheduled for 6:00 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at the Miami Beach Commission chambers, 1700 Convention Center Dr.) At the same time it will be a test for the partiers, whom he hopes won't expect to be greeted with kid gloves or billy clubs. "The hip-hop generation is an anything-goes kind of generation," Battles notes. "My concern is that I don't want people to come to Miami Beach with some preconceived notion that [it's] going to be a lawless community. We want them to come to Miami Beach and have a good time ..."

He also shares an inescapable truth that's not in his guidebook. "It's great for the economy, but the residents have to suffer," Battles admits. "That's what happened in Myrtle Beach. The residents decided they were either going to go to the grocery store, get their food for the weekend and stay in, or just leave. The same thing happens in Daytona. The same thing will probably happen in Miami Beach."

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